On Friday night at the T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas, the 2017 Pac-12 Men's Basketball Tournament semifinals lived up to the billing, as the Conference of Champions staged two exciting games that kept fans cheering until the final buzzers. The top-seeded Oregon Ducks beat the fifth-seeded California Golden Bears, 73-65, in the first game, fighting off a serious challenge in the final minute from an undermanned underdog. In the second game, the highly anticipated showdown between the No. 2-seed Arizona Wildcats and the No. 3-seed UCLA Bruins didn't disappoint as the Wildcats broke open a close game in the second half with a blistering effort on both ends of the court to win, 86-75. Oregon is the defending tournament champion, and it will face Arizona on Saturday night in the title matchup at 8:00 p.m. Pacific Time. You won't want to miss that one, as the winner gets the Pac-12's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament next week.
If you had previous social commitments on Friday night and missed the two tourney games, here's what happened in the Session 5 semifinals.
Whose fans will be happy?
The Wildcats were ranked No. 10 in the preseason Associated Press poll, but after a loss to Gonzaga in early December, Arizona dropped to 20th in the weekly rankings. One 15-game winning streak later, and the Wildcats were back into the Top 10 for good. This victory over the AP's current No. 3 team on the big stage under the bright lights validated Arizona's ability and talent, and now the Wildcats (29-4) get another chance to show the nation just how good they are. Arizona posted three straight Sweet 16 appearances from 2013-2015 before being upset in the first round of March Madness last year, and the Wildcats are playing like they are on a mission in 2017 to get to the Final Four.
Whose fans will be sad?
The Golden Bears played without one of their best players for 39 minutes against the Ducks, and Cal fans were left wondering, "What if?", as a result. Senior guard Jabari Bird went down with a head injury in the first minute of the game and was unable to play any more. Bird is the leading scorer on this Bears team, and even without him, the Cal players were able to keep the game very close against an Oregon team that beat it twice already this season. In the final moments of the game when the Bears were down just two points with 44 seconds to go, Cal really could have used Bird's presence on the floor. The Bears (21-12) should have done enough at this point to make the NCAA Tournament, but this will resonate with the fans for awhile since the team did so well without its leading scorer. Cal could have won this game with Bird playing his usual minutes.
What were the big moments?
For Oregon, it was those final 44 seconds of the game once Cal closed to within two points. The Ducks' dreams were on the line, until senior guard Dylan Ennis took matters into his own hands. He scored on a layup in the paint and was fouled, making the free throw to re-establish a five-point lead for Oregon (29-4). Ennis then grabbed the defensive rebound on the next Bears possession, was fouled by a Cal player and then sunk two more free throws to clinch the game for the Ducks. All this took place over 42 seconds of game time, when an Oregon senior took control of the game when it mattered most. In the second game, Arizona more than doubled its halftime lead in the first five minutes of the second half behind the freshman forward from Finland, Lauri Markkanen. He made the first and last baskets of a 15-7 run for the Wildcats that put the Bruins (29-4) in a hole from which they could not recover, and Markkanen made it look easy.
Which players came up big?
While the rest of the Ducks combined to shoot just 34.8 percent from the floor, Oregon sophomore guard Tyler Dorsey shot 9-for-13 from the floor, including 5-for-6 from three-point range. Other than one steal, Dorsey did nothing but score for the Ducks in their tight win: no rebounds, no assists, no fouls, no blocks, no turnovers, etc. His 23 points, however, led Oregon and played a huge role in the team's victory. As for the Wildcats, they fed Markkanen all night, as UCLA's TJ Leaf—also a freshman—couldn't handle his Finnish adversary on the defensive end at all. Markannen scored 29 points on 22 shots from the floor, while Leaf fouled out trying to defend him in the process.
Which players needed to be better?
Cal sophomore Ivan Rabb had a heavy load to carry in Bird's absence on Friday night, and while the Bears as a whole kept the game way closer than anyone expected under the circumstances, Rabb had to be better than he was in the close loss to Oregon. He missed eight of his 12 shots from the floor, and he also missed three of his six free-throw attempts. Rabb did grab seven boards, but his poor all-around shooting effort on the night helped doom the Bears' chances for victory. In the other semifinal matchup, UCLA freshman point guard Lonzo Ball has been a revelation this season, but he disappeared in this game, scoring just eight points while committing four fouls. The Bruins needed their best player to dominate Friday night, but Ball's inexperience showed against a tough opponent on national television.
Big picture in the Pac-12 men's basketball tournament
Oregon and Arizona both posted 16-2 records in conference play this year, tying for the regular-season title, although Oregon won the only head-to-head matchup on its home court convincingly. Now, the two top teams in the Pac-12 Conference can decide the tournament championship on the floor, as it should be. Whichever team wins on Saturday night could be in line for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but the selection committee has shown a distinct lack of respect for the league in the last few seasons due to a perceived lack of quality depth. That can't be the case this year, though, with UCLA, USC, Cal and Utah all having pretty good seasons on the whole. The top half of the league is top notch.
In the championship, look for the Wildcats to outlast the Ducks in a close game that goes down to the wire. Arizona has dominated its two games in the Pac-12 Tournament so far, giving its starters and key players enough rest on Thursday and Friday nights to handle the strain of a third game in three days. Oregon was tested a bit more on both Thursday afternoon by Arizona State and Friday night by Cal than Arizona was by Colorado and UCLA, respectively. Both teams are very good, of course, but that little factor of potential fatigue should hurt the Ducks and their long-distance shooting more than it's going to hurt the Wildcats and their more-balanced offense.
If Arizona does win, it will be tough for the NCAA Tournament committee to deny them a No. 1 seed for March Madness after beating the No. 3 and No. 5 teams in the nation on back-to-back nights. Keep that in mind come Selection Sunday. Last year, Oregon won the Pac-12 tourney and still got a No. 2 seed from the committee, and that might happen again if the Ducks emerge as the conference champions tomorrow once more.